Thinking About Gun Violence

Every time that there is a mass shooting, there is a short lived debate about what to do.  Unfortunately, it soon dies out, in part because those who want action are not as well organized as gun rights advocates, set unrealistic objectives –prevention versus reducing the incidence, and the debate is too polarized.

Certainly, everyone would like to find a way to prevent mass shootings within the context of the Constitution but the problem is too complex for that objective to be achieved.  But that does not mean that such killings and others cannot be reduced.  So, the focus should be on a combination of policies and actions that will make mass killings and others less likely.  What is needed is a serious discussion about guns and gun violence that is based on fact and desire to find common ground.

Florida has the Baker Act which provides to involuntary confinement for mental evaluation.  Local authorities and the FBI had information that could have led to Cruz being confined under that law but the system failed, especially at the local level.  In the case of the Las Vegas shootings, it is not clear that there was enough prior information that could have led to an intervention.    In addition to states having robust gun violence restraining ordnances, there needs to be better public education on behaviors that justify reporting.  For 20 years, Congress has prohibited the CDC from conducting research on gun violence behaviors.  That prohibition has no justification for not investing in knowledge.

Peer reviewed research—Grant Duwe, Michael Rocaque– has shown that individuals with major mental disorders (those that substantially interfere with life activities) are more likely to commit violent acts, especially if they abuse drugs. When we focus more narrowly on mass public shootings — an extreme and, fortunately, rare form of violence — we see a relatively high rate of mental illness.

 The NRA is a major obstacle.  The national headquarters has brainwashed its members that any restraints are the slippery slope to confiscation.  Some members have been quoted as saying owning AR-15 type assault rifles is their god given right under the Constitution.  Anyone who believes that doesn’t understand the Constitution and is possessed by a dangerous thought process.  In writing for the majority in the Heller v DC case, Justice Scalia wrote, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited…”. It is “…not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”  Limiting guns to those used for self defense, hunting, and target shooting is a good start but not sufficient to reduce senseless shootings.  A serious discussion would involve asking why anyone really needs a weapons of war?  Most people do not know that it is still legal to buy pre 1986 machine guns, flame throwers, and Miniguns ( similar to Gatling guns?

However, the licensing requirements are very strict. The process under the National Firearms Act is costly, invasive, and time-consuming. Federal law requires extensive background checks of anyone wishing to own a NFA item such as a machine gun. To purchase a machine gun today, it would take close to a year for the more extensive background check, including submitting fingerprints and a photo.  At a minimum, it would make sense to have the same requirements for AR weapons.

Between 1994 and 2004, there was a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines.  Analyses of the ban lead to mixed results because of limited data.  Australia took a series of actions in 1996 that included a ban, new licensing requirements and a buy back program.  In the 18 year period since those actions were taken, mass shootings dropped from 13 to zero.  It is worth analyzing the Australian program to see what aspects apply here.

The goal should be to make it harder for bad guys to get guns & ammunition without unreasonably restraining the ability for good people to have access to firearms for protection, hunting, and sport shooting.   In economics if you raise the cost of something, you get less of it.   Using a more robust background check and licensing system would raise the cost but not make it prohibitive.

The best way to have a real national discussion would be to set up a National Commission to examine the full range of issues involving gun violence leading to  a set of recommendations


Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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